Stomping across the stage in a disheveled blond wig, cheesy pink boots, and a jean skirt adorned with raccoon tails, performance artist Rose Wood is every bit the trailer-park hooker attempting to sell her wares. Enraged and desperate, she strips off her torn and tied T-shirt, revealing nude breasts, and when that doesn’t work, she drops her panties to display her penis.
It’s 3 a.m. at the Box, a trendy destination spot on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for celebrities and the well-heeled who want to dabble in a little decadence. The dimly lit, tightly packed space, with its frayed, heavy wall hangings, is at once 19th-century opera house and punk rock club, with a hint of goth thrown in for good measure. Wood is one of many provocative performers, but undoubtedly the main attraction and a nightly staple at the Box since 2006.
It’s far-out theater and not for all tastes, admits Wood, who was born Jon Moskowitz and defines herself as a “gender-terrorist.” In short-form snippets that run the gamut of sensibilities — from hypersexual and brutish to joyous and demented — Wood uses the stage to offer social commentary on a range of issues, most pointedly the myths and hypocrisy surrounding gender identity.
Wood can play straight men or straight women and “pass” as either, but more often than not she tackles sexually ambiguous characters, including a Rabbi Rosenwood who takes to the stage on Jewish holidays. Burlesque, vaudeville, drag, and political theater have shaped Wood’s wordless performance, which is explicit and at times grisly.
“Terms like ‘pornographic’ or ‘exhibitionistic’ or ‘aggressive’ are social constructs,” says the heady, yet very gentle offstage Wood who meets with me in her overstuffed Chelsea workshop where she works as a high-end wood refinisher. “That’s not to say there is no such thing as pornographic or exhibitionistic or aggressive,” she continues, “but it all has to do with the intention. Someone who is administering the Heimlich maneuver is aggressive.”
Wood seeks to shake her audience out of their comfort zone and, in so doing, free them to get up and dance and intermingle between sets. She also sees herself as a teacher who, ideally, broadens their perspectives by “opening up that part of me that I would hide or repress — or that others might judge — in order to reveal something that’s universal.”
There’s a political dynamic involved as well. “Because I work in a space for a privileged elite who have paid $1,500 to $2,500 for a table, my role is to enhance their sense of entitlement by making them feel superior because they’re seeing something naughty others are not seeing.”
Off stage Wood evokes a masculine figure despite the coiffed wig and deftly applied eyeliner. She walks around her studio with large strides, devoid of campiness. She was never a gay man and she’s not fully trans either, though she has always felt more like a woman than a man. Asked why she calls herself “Rose Wood,” she explains that the name was inspired by the beautiful rosewood she works on in her shop, and proudly holds up a polished reddish-brown slab. “Ebony is the king of woods, while rosewood is the queen of wood,” she says.
Still, Wood still struggles with her gender identity. She is not sexually drawn to men, women, transmen or transwomen, though she had a short-lived period of drugged-out, polymorphic sexual activity a long time ago. “And now I could care even less,” she notes matter-of-factly.